Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Another Look at Reading

My good friend Mike Kasaboski left a comment for me the other day, regarding my essay on reading, and it really got me to thinking. As he put it -

"[I]n regards to Deep Reading. This is most certainly a euphoric state and in addition to experiencing it via reading, I've also experienced it via drawing."

Euphoria is wonderful way to describe the feeling I get in the deep reading state, and it is a word that functions as a way to crystallize other thoughts and memories of reading I have had over the years. Euphoria is a good word, implying a heightened state of pleasure, yet in all goods things, and in all things good, there inevitably is a flip side where good ceases and bad begins.

In article after article, in newspapers, on blogs, in books, and in magazines, whenever the subject of reading is broached, it is broached with a sense of there not being enough of it, of its inherent nobility, of being the very hallmark of civilization. What I almost never see is a look into the negative aspects of reading, the dangers of reading, of how reading may not be all its cracked up to be, and euphoria is just the word to start the discussion.

When terms like "chasing-the-dragon" are used about heroin junkies or opiate addicts, within the epithet is the idea that the high, or euphoric state the users are seeking, can be closely approached, but never truly touched, or held on to for long. In the film Trainspotting, this motif is prevalent throughout the movie, and especially in the soundtrack, culminating in the track "Born Slippy," by Underworld. With reading, however, just as it is with distance running, that high, or euphoria, can be obtained, and sustained. Unfortunately, just as there is with heroin or opiates, there is a cost, even if the cost is undetectable at first. Now, before I advance this argument further, I want be clear that I use a comparison between reading and drugs with tongue only partially in cheek, because there is a kernel of truth to the comparison.

As I said, reading incurs a cost, and even if that cost is not obvious at first, it nonetheless exists. When I was in my mid-twenties, I visited my sister's place, where I learned about the fate of many a title that had mysteriously "disappeared" from my own library over the years. Looking at those books, my sister told me something that has stuck with me since. She opened a few books and pointed out places where I had underlined phrases, or had written notes in the margins. She mention enjoying coming across these little signs of my previous reading, as they helped her understand who I was as a person.

If that seems an odd thing to say, that's because it is, but it was also very true. Today, from the perspective of a father with children of my own, I look back at those years as a child and a teenager and cannot help but be reminded of what I have come to regard as my greatest regret - not knowing my little sister. And why didn't I know her? There were a few reasons, but the biggest among them I now believe, was reading.

During that same conversation with my sister, I don't know what was said or how the conversation got there, but at one point she became somewhat emphatic, wanting me to know that she felt I was "addicted" to reading, and she did not mean it as a compliment. She saw it as a symptom of something deeper, and unwillingness to engage the world, a need for a perpetual escape from reality. I knew she was talking crazy talk, and I told her so.

But she wasn't talking crazy talk at all. She was talking truth. Truth from my little sister, and I wasn't listening. Though in fairness, how many big brothers out there ever do listen their little sisters anyway? I think it's a congenital defect common to all big brothers the world over. Still...She was right.

But I didn't know that then. I had trouble believing it. Was she right? Was reading an addiction? Was my reading my unconscious method of escaping a reality I didn't feel I could cope with? When you put it in those terms, reading starts to sound awfully like a lot of other damaging addictions, drugs included.

I told myself, fervently argued to myself, that what she said was garbage. I liked reading. It was fun. It was a good thing. It wasn't an addiction, and so what if it was? Everyone knew that reading was good, and that more reading was better. Didn't they?

Which brings us back to Mike's wonderful word - euphoria.

All of these conflicting ideas, though I have compressed them in a few short paragraphs, actually slowly surfaced over years, like thoughts in hibernating bear's dream. Now, looking back, with an open mind, I can see not only how my little sister was entirely right, but how this addiction influenced my own actions, and the actions of others - how it literally influenced the course of my own life.

Growing up, I'd moved from place to place, school to school like an itinerant worker between seasons. Five schools by grade five, eight by the time I graduated high school. While not even close to what the average army brat experiences, this sort of dislocation still has its effects. When people and places are constantly changing, often the safest and surest thing is what you know, and what I knew were books. No matter where I was, I was only a flip of the page away from comfort and security, and to ensure that I didn't finish at an inopportune time, I'd learned to carry two books with me at all times - the one I was reading, and an emergency book in case I finished the first one.

I dove into those books every chance I got. While eating breakfast before school, while walking to school, while waiting for the teacher to start class, while the teacher was conducting class, while I was in the washroom, and while I was sitting in the principal's office for being such an obtuse, anti-social jerk. I read during dinner, in the car, on the bus, in bed. Anywhere and everywhere, any time and any place. I loved reading so much that I truly did prefer it to the company of people, for people, I found, were a mystery to me. I'd read so much by grade six that I couldn't relate to anyone my age, and was young enough that jumping into adult conversations and debates (especially not having the sense to know that adults don't like it when a kid makes them look stupid) never ended particularly well. Especially with my father, who saw debate as a very dirty word.

I didn't know it then, but reading is what set me apart, and what had created a permanent wedge between myself and pretty much all of society in general. The more I read, the less I related to others, and the more I sought refuge in books. It was a constantly reinforcing vicious cycle, and there is one particular memory from my past that stands out, representative of it all.

I was in my mid-teens, with my father, sister, step-siblings and step-mother and we had all packed into a van and driven down to Sarnia where and older lady, who was a dear friend of my father, lived. Ruth, and her husband Gus, were the soul of humility and hospitality. Their whole family was over and we all got together for a weekend of barbeque and relaxation. I was particularly psyched because I'd packed Tad Williams' series "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn," which to a teenage boy was the closest thing to the purest most addictive crystal meth a set of books could ever be.

That weekend I curled up a cozy recliner, and blasted my way through three massive books. From time to time my Dad would call me out and ask me to "socialize" but I just couldn't see the fun in that. I mean talk to people? What was the point? So off I would go, slipping away and finding that comfy spot, and jumping back in where I had left off.

Sitting there on that chair, deep into the story, I felt that euphoria, as I always had when I immersed myself in books, especially ones that were monster sized epic fantasy. But on the last day that all changed. I'd finished the last page of the third book, and was feeling pretty down because while I had packed three books, I hadn't packed an emergency book in case I'd finished all three! The second and third books were my emergency books. No one had said anything about needing triple redundancy. I'd just read them too fast, was all, and was feeling a bit out of sorts. Then I walked into the kitchen, and into a verbal onslaught from Ruth.

You see Ruth was the sort of woman who is representative of the image of kindly grandmother. She was that little old lady who would give you her last nickel, or mend a neighbor's fraying hem, for free. And while it is cliche to say it really did come as a shock when I walked into her kitchen only to see her snarl at me, and launch into a verbal tirade that had me fleeing from her house in very short order. I, she let me know in no uncertain terms, was a stuck-up know-it-all who shoved books in people's faces to prove how smart I was. I was rude, an embarrassment to my father, and did not even have the sense to be ashamed of myself. There was more, but it wouldn't be polite for me to print it here.

What she'd said angered me and confused me, and I took off for five or six hours in a great old sulk. I just couldn't wrap my head around her way of thinking. I didn't think I was better than everyone else, I just liked reading a lot, and felt uncomfortable around others. Sitting in a circle, shooting the shoot, was something I absolutely did not know how to do, and even making the attempt felt tedious and pointless beyond compare. I just preferred to stay out of everyone's way, and figured they'd be happy and I'd be happy. A total win-win. Yet nobody else saw it that way.

Eventually my step-sister was tasked with tracking me down, to see if I was still breathing or not. I reluctantly headed back, and when I got back, the van had already been packed up, and everyone was in a somber mood. My father was walking around on a hair trigger, so I made sure I said and did nothing at all that might upset him. We got in the van, and headed home.

Later, when my father had calmed enough to speak, he started telling me about how ashamed he had felt, how good a friend Ruth was, how I had spit on her hospitality. Or at least I think he said something along those lines. I wasn't listening by then. I just kept thinking about how I wished I had thought to bring another book.

Today, I still have that same love of reading, but also the benefit of time and perspective, if not always the wisdom that goes along with those two. Books are my drug of choice, I see them as such, and use them in the knowledge that that's what they are to me. I don't see them as harmless entities. I see them like a I see a ticket to a movie, a video game, or a DVD, only better. They are a form of entertainment I am particularly adapted to engaging in, which offers an escape from reality, and a chance to slip into a state of euphoria at will.

Which brings this rumination to almost to the end. I hope I haven't left you with the impression that I think reading is bad, because I don't believe it is. But I also I hope I haven't left you with the impression that reading is entirely good, because it's not that either. Like almost any activity in the human realm, overly excessive engagement has negative consequences, and what most see as a virtue, can quickly become a vice.

I gained a lot through reading, learning about different places and times, and taking part in countless stories that made me laugh and cry, excited me and saddened me. But reading also lost me more than I knew. It took my little sister away from me, so that instead of knowing her as someone I loved, played with, and confided in, I only knew her as a shadow slipping along the edge of the dust jacket, as I turned to get better light and avoid unnecessary distractions around me.

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